We Are Chicago is a first-person narrative story told from the perspective of a young African American teenager trying to make his way in the Windy City, and all that goes into it. For the most part, the game pulls few punches in the telling of its story while tackling the sensitive subject of gang violence right off the bat – and the challenges of surviving in such a dangerous environment.
While I did have issues with We Are Chicago, and there were quite a few, the overall experience and unique insight it presents are enough to help make it a memorable experience. Despite what you’ve heard, the game is worlds away from Grand Theft Auto, and all the better for it.
We Are Chicago tells the story of Aaron, eighteen years old and a week away from graduation. His father passed away several years ago, so now it’s just him, his little sister Taylor, and their mom Maya. Aaron works at a part-time job to help make ends meet while doing his best to set a good example for his sister. He wants the best for her and goes to great lengths to keep her safe.
Aaron also deals with the peer pressure of not joining a gang or taking sides. He does what he can to protect his friends and steer them on the right path, but it’s not always cut and dry. The dangers and threats are real in the streets of Chicago and Aaron should tread carefully if he wants to build a better future for him and his family.
Essentially, the game is a watered-down walking simulator with various dialogue trees available to players to help tell its story. Playing from Aaron’s perspective had its difficulties, but I ended up enjoying his story far more than anticipated.
Mundane tasks and actions are the forefront of We Are Chicago, from walking Taylor home from school to handling cash at work, there’s not much ‘excitement’ to be had from a traditional viewpoint. However, this is where the game draws most of its strengths as small details and fine lines help make Aaron’s world feel authentic. He’s just a teenage kid on the cusp of adulthood, trying to make the best of a bad situation. There are times these otherwise mundane activities are interspersed with tough situations and decisions everyone have to make, including Aaron.
Take one of the game’s basic premises: when faced with the choices of representing a gang or being there for his sister, I did my best to steer him towards making smart choices and avoiding trouble. From the start, Aaron is confronted with the choice to represent a gang. I chose for him to remain neutral in these interactions, yet despite this choice, he later gets dragged into a gang fight. Other ‘choices’ happen just outside our limited viewpoint; just sitting down to dinner with his family we hear gunshots blasting outside the window. The sound of police sirens is his world is rare, and even walking down the street minding one’s own business is no guarantee of safety.
Life is hard and not everyone sees the brighter future Aaron does. He’s set on going to college to better himself and his future employment prospects, but job opportunities for a young African American teen are hard to come by in Chicago.
Even his friends who start out with a clean slate face their own challenges of landing a job, especially with the reputations of family members and gang violence hanging over their heads. In some cases, this means the hard choice of joining a gang to gain financial stability and protection when out in the streets. They don’t see the brighter future that Aaron strives for and, when they find themselves in a desperate situation, take the only opportunity they see available to improve their lot in life.
As noble as the game’s ambitions are, there were several issues marring the experience. A rather big one involved the mechanics to make choices and move Aaron around. Most of the time he’ll walk automatically from area to area and even initiate conversations. The only control players have in these moments is to turn Arron’s head towards the speaker, but this mechanic is so slow that by the time I’ve managed to turn him another character is speaking or the first-person view snaps to looking forward again.
Being a voracious reader myself, I can usually blaze through text with few issues. During the various dialogue trees a timer for choosing player responses to characters and situations pops up, but whips by so fast there’s barely enough time to even read the decisions. Half the time I would smash a button or make a hasty decision since by the time I’d read the question or response offered half of the timer would already be up. Just a few extra seconds would have made it easier to read the responses given and allowed a chance to decide.
We Are Chicago also isn’t the most stunning walking simulator to lay eyes upon. While it didn’t bother me that much, the lack of textures and the environment just being “there” instead of feeling “alive” felt oddly strange. While I understand the need for the game’s first-person narrative, We Are Chicago suffers a bit from this design choice. There were constant bugs I would encounter from constant pauses and character responses playing on loops to simply trying to navigate around his world. Perhaps the experience might have worked better as a visual novel or employed smoother transitions instead of loud audio cues to indicate when the player has control.
While that might sound a little harsh, I will say the various characters, despite the game’s visual limitations, felt real to me. Aaron himself never speaks, odd when every character is fully voice acted, but this was probably a matter of narrative preference. The characters, for the most part, did feel alive and I found myself taking a special liking to Aaron’s little sister, Taylor. She left the strongest impression on me in how happy she is and just loves her brother and mother with all her heart.
This audio mastery bleeds into a poetry jam Aaron participates in, where he presents his poem called “Lament of a Wasted Life”. While Aaron is a silent protagonist, his poem is presented via the different voices from people who’ve influenced him throughout his life instead. The poem itself is beautiful, simple, inspiring, and truly represented how Aaron felt growing up in Chicago. I’ve never heard anything like it since and, quite truthfully, found it one of the best parts of the game.
As a game, We Are Chicago is rife with issues, both technical and otherwise, but these flaws aren’t enough to detract from its overall substance and spirit. There’s much here to appreciate, especially as the game strives to present a unique narrative we seldom get to see in gaming. The writing is particularly phenomenal, showcasing both the mundane beauty and terrible scenarios in telling the story of one brave teenager. I loved getting to know Aaron and his family, and my only regret is there aren’t more like it.